“…tolerance cannot be assumed …. it must be taught. And we must make it clear that hate is never right and love is never wrong!”
– Auschwitz survivor Roman Kent, speaking at the memorial ceremony for the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz
I am writing this on a cold January day. On the ground are the remains of the nearly two feet of snow that fell here a few days ago, on January 27th, 2015. That day was also the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, perhaps the most infamous concentration camp, and surely one of the most evil monuments to hatred constructed by the Nazis during World War II. The weather on that long ago day in Poland may well have been like this one in southern New England: the wind gusting strongly, cutting through skin and clothing like a frigid knife.
“At least 1.1 million people were killed here, most within hours of their arrival.”
— Andrew Curry, writing about Auschwitz for Smithsonian Magazine, February, 2010
As I sit here, I am warm, safe, and well-fed. I am still alive, despite cancer, grief, the viscissitudes of occasional misfortune. I am doing two of the most powerful things any of us can do in the face of bestial human cruelty — I am remembering and I am writing.
I am remembering a small handful of friends and their parents, Jewish friends of my generation, and their parents who were imprisoned in concentration camps and managed to survive. I am remembering the cordial, dignified father of one of those friends. He scarcely ever spoke of his experience in the camp, but it was always there, like a base note humming underneath his posture, his demeanor. It vibrated with the conflicting emotions of survivors’ guilt. With every intention of preventing his children from feeling that guilt, they inherited it anyway, a burden of helpless sorrow and wordless resolve that infused their perspective, their self-esteem, their choices.
I am remembering a woman I met several years ago. I was visiting her to perform a home physical therapy evaluation. She had recently come home from the hospital and was feeling weak and unsteady. She was a charming lady who spoke with an accent that sounded Eastern European. Her house was cluttered with old furniture and memorabilia. In the background was the sound of soft clucking from the hens she kept in a large coop behind her house. I petted her sweet old dog. And I admired a large, elaborate cage full of vividly colored Australian finches, a gift from her son, who was present to help. She offered me tea, coffee, lunch, egg salad, cake, each of which I politely refused. Her son and I discussed ways to rearrange some furniture to create safer pathways for her and her walker. She was tiny and bent with arthritis, but fiercely alive, her face crinkling throughout our visit into an irrepressible smile. She resisted several of our suggestions, but always with charming persuasiveness. “I’m old, but I get around okay,” she said. She again offered me a drink, a sandwich, cake. Again, I declined with a smile.
As we were wrapping up our visit, I asked her about her accent. “Where are you from originally?” I asked. “Your accent sounds like Hungarian or perhaps Polish. Where is it from?”
“I am from Auschwitz,” she said. And as she said it, one of her sleeves got rucked up, and on her arm was a tattoo of several numbers in a row.
My eyes instantly filled up, but somehow I managed not to cry. We gazed intently at each other for a few eternal seconds. Finally, I said, “I am very glad you are here.”
“Every one of you is the guardian of the memory…”
— Bronisław Komorowski, the President of the Republic of Poland, at the Memorial Ceremony for the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz
As I was packing up to leave, she insisted that her son fetch me a dozen eggs. “Fresh,” she said, with her remarkable smile, “very good hens. You take.”
I hoisted my work bag over my shoulder and accepted the carton. “I’m very glad to have met you,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said, patting my hand. “You a good girl.”
I managed to get into my car and drive to the end of her driveway before I had to stop the car. I sat and wept for several minutes. Every day over the next few weeks, I would tear up whenever I cracked an egg, and say a silent prayer.
Today, this week, I weep again and I remember. I will always remember. It is the very least I can do.
1) Auschwitz: The Forgotten Evidence – Full Documentary – History Channel
2) The Auschwitz Album, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, National Geographic Channel
3) Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum, 70th Anniversary of Liberation Memorial Ceremony
4) Smithsonian: Preserving Auschwitz